How did gas kill soldiers in World War I.

The First World War

Dr. Bernd Ulrich

Dr. Bernd Ulrich, born in 1956, is a self-employed historian and works as a publicist, (radio) author and curator. An overview of his work can be found at:

"Roll of fire" and "barrage" are terms symbolic of the new, industrialized warfare in the First World War. There were also flamethrowers and poison gas. Man no longer only attacked man, but also his immediate environment. Above all, the gas gave the war a brutal, completely new quality.

On the Western Front in 1917: German soldiers and a mule with gas masks. (& copy picture-alliance / akg)

On December 3, 1914, the writer and anarchist Erich Mühsam noted in his diary: "The Austrians in Galicia and the Carpathians in distress, the Germans in Poland in a confident position, in France everything the same: Decisive rivers of blood." Hardly could not have guessed to what extent his expression of the "unconditional bloodstreams" would not only characterize the phase of the war of movement, but also the years of material battles to come. It is about them in the following.

From movement to position warfare

Fallen German soldier on the Western Front in September 1918. (& copy picture-alliance / Mary Evans / Ro)
In fact, shortly before Mühsam's diary entry in mid-November 1914, the enormously loss-making first Battle of Flanders was broken off after the failure of the German plan of operations had already become apparent in September on the Marne ("Miracle on the Marne"). This happened largely unnoticed by the German public. In view of the development of the war on the Eastern Front, but above all due to the noticeable lack of ammunition, the complete exhaustion of the front troops and the surprisingly early onset of winter, the 2nd Supreme Army Command (OHL) under Erich von Falkenhayn ordered the provisional at the end of November 1914 on the Kaiser's orders End of the offensive. Falkenhayns' predecessor, Helmuth von Moltke (the younger), had suffered a "nervous breakdown" after the defeat on the Marne and was effectively out of service since September 14th.

The Eastern Front 1915 (& copy Center for Military History and Social Sciences of the Bundeswehr)
In his "General Remarks" on the trench warfare that was now comprehensively beginning (of November 25, 1914), v. Falkenhayn, which was also ordered by the British and French commanders, namely "to hold the line that has been won". The military leadership also advised the troops that "first the front lines should be fortified by all means" and - against the resistance of many officers trained in the spirit of the offensive - "at the same time" to operate the "expansion of rear positions" in order to to stop any breakthrough attacks by the enemy. Nevertheless, at this point in time, the military leadership regarded the construction of trenches as merely provisional and gave it "the character of combat winter quarters for the near future". "But it is also repeated here", it says in conclusion in the "General Comments" on the positional warfare, "that in these winter quarters the will to move forward must under no circumstances fall asleep".

At the turn of the year 1914/15 the German troops were in the east - where great but not decisive victories were recorded - and in the west on "enemy territory". But from now on, trench warfare dominated events, especially on the German western front, while on the eastern front it only began after a lengthy phase of war of movement and was then repeatedly interrupted by extensive offensives.

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From the field post letter of an infantryman about the battle of Verdun on July 2nd, 1916:

"When we arrived at the position, we lay dead tired in shell holes - there was no talk of trenches or shelters;
the area was only stormed two days ago, there we lay for four days at first very wet and 1/2 meter deep in the dirt - a barrage went off at us that tore one from one hole to the other; the cries of pain and the moans of the wounded who must perish miserably; [...] - Carrying back is out of the question. Grenade fire day and night - often that it rained 10-20 projectiles a second, buried us and dug us up again. Our lieutenant cried like a child; yes as they lay there, a foot away - arms away, all torn to pieces. God, that was terrible. [...] You cannot get an idea of ​​this horror and nobody who doesn’t go through it. [...] "

From: Bernd Ulrich and Benjamin Ziemann (eds.), Everyday life at the front in the First World War. A historical reading book, Essen 2008, p. 64.



The Battle of Verdun 1916 (& copy Center for Military History and Social Sciences of the Bundeswehr)
In the west, on the other hand, hardly anything changed on the 700-kilometer front that ran between the Swiss border and the Belgian North Sea coast by the spring of 1918. The distance between the enemy trenches was generally fifty to eight hundred meters, and as the war went on they were to be expanded to form entire systems of trenches and supplemented at the rear with catchment areas, supply and rest zones, in order to finally merge into the stage area. Attack and counterattack determined the days on some sectors of the front. Whole divisions, according to the language regulation, which was soon adapted to the war of industrial wear and tear, "burned out" for the sake of smaller territorial gains "to the point of slag". The western front became the epitome of the world war. The associated experiences of the survivors shaped their everyday lives and their memories beyond the war.

Barrage and "fire roller"

French 400mm artillery gun in the Battle of the Somme, June 1916. (& copy picture-alliance, Mary Evans Picture Library)
For the military leadership, however, it was essential to have to get the war going again at selected sections in order to break through the hostile, interconnected rift system and thus gain space. The increasing use of continuous fire with grenades of all calibres (drum fire) and the subsequent infantry attack were considered effective means. To this day they are the epitome of the material war that is dependent on industrial and human resources. As early as 1915, with the start of the winter battle in Champagne, this method of attack began to become a reality. Above all, however, it connects with the battles for Verdun (February to December 1916), on the Somme (July to December 1916) and with the third Battle of Flanders (July to November 1917). After months of logistical preparation - the creation of ammunition stores, the construction of access routes for the transport of ammunition and the guns, the massing of troops as unnoticed as possible - the barrage began, which could last for hours and finally days with changing guns and crews.

In the ten-day barrage of the 3rd Battle of Flanders, which was carried out with around 3,000 guns, the artillery fired around four million shells. Against this background, it is no wonder that in the phases of material battles, artillery projectiles and the fragmentation effect they caused were responsible for up to 80 percent of all often fatal wounds. Admittedly, the space gained shortly afterwards with high losses in view of such material expenditure remained minimal and was often quickly lost again. One or two intact, well camouflaged and protected machine gun nests could stop or destroy entire regiments.

1917: German soldiers practice using flamethrowing near Sedan. (& copy picture-alliance / akg)
A special further development of the attack tactics was the "fire roller" used, which had already been practiced at the end of 1914 and was then refined more and more in the great material battles of 1915 and was also used on the Eastern Front in 1916: the artillery bombardment was precisely timed Spatially advanced at a distance, while at the same time the infantry behind this wall of fire was advanced towards the enemy trenches in order to conquer them. However, this approach did not bring the hoped-for sweeping success any more than underground mine blasting. Tunnels were driven under the enemy trenches, filled with explosives and blown up shortly before a planned attack. What remained were huge explosive funnels and, if the earthworks had not been identified beforehand, a large number of dead and injured. Flamethrowers had been developed by a Berlin engineer and firefighter before the war and were first used in large numbers in the Battle of Verdun. They should serve to overcome enemy positions as well as the use of poison gas.

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Description of a typical assault in 1915 from the documentary novel "Heeresbericht" by Edlef Köppen

The French infantry advanced behind a fire roller of their artillery on German positions near the French village Loos (in Artois), which was temporarily at the center of the fighting during the autumn battle from September 22, 1915.
After the offensive was stopped without major gains in land, the attackers recorded around 170,000 dead, wounded and missing persons, and the Germans holding their positions over 50,000 dead, wounded and missing. The protagonist of the novel is called Adolf Reisiger, is a student and volunteer and served - like Edlef Köppen himself - for four years in a field artillery regiment, initially as a simple gunner and finally as a reserve lieutenant. In the following scene he is assigned to the infantry in the foremost trench as an artillery observer and observes what is happening:
"The enemy fire intensified. The shots drummed on the trench. The impacts crowded together to incessant thunder. The lime flew up, planks, tree trunks were thrown into the sky. Next to Reisiger stood five infantry posts, motionless, rifles at the ready. You. You suddenly moved together. A group appeared at a run from the tunnel. A machine gun was brought into position. The waitress squeezed between the trunks of the barricade, digged black dirt backwards, pushed the machine-gun to the hollow The enemy pulled them back to their own position. At the same moment a sergeant jumped at Reisiger: "The enemy is attacking. Artillery rapid fire!" (...) Reisiger automatically took the phone repeated the sergeant's words, and when he hung up the phone, his own serves were already chopping like vicious dogs batteries into the enemy's smoke cylinder. (...) The smoke roller began to wander, advanced again on the German trench. And every time she jumped up, Reisiger saw people running behind her. The enemy! This is the enemy! He pushed himself against the M.G. crew: ´Da - French! ´ - The answer, doggedly: ´ Let it get there ... ´. (...) How the last smoke has loosened from the ground, stands and lies and kneels and crawls and runs and jumps, gray, living mass, the enemy. And rushes towards the trench, wielding hand grenades, bayonet stretched. The machine gun starts yapping next to Reisiger. Rapid fire from all rifles crackles next to him. Lord God what is happening! Dozens of French people throw up their arms and fall backwards to the ground. But other dozen of them are tightly packed and keep pushing forward. (...) You scream at the machine gun. Reisiger doesn't understand a word. Sometimes the shooters laugh, the rifle operator (of the machine gun) points a new target, one triumphs: 'The gang of carrion does not get up again'. Yes, yes, the French are already in the ditch! Reisiger sees five of them (...) jumping over the parapet. (...) A French officer strokes a parapet. The wide eyes! The open mouth! A German rushes at him. The officer turns up the butt of the rifle. Before he could strike, the German grabs a short spade, hits: the Frenchman rolls backwards with his head split. German artillery fire dances between the trenches. But there is no longer an enemy. There only the dead are killed a second time, thrown into the air, crushed. (...) When Reisiger was relieved, he heard that the company had few losses before his sector. 'Only eleven dead.' (…) But he had looked at the first of these eleven men. It was an elderly soldier with a full beard and a wedding ring on his right hand. Reisiger didn't understand that. "

From: Edlef Köppen, Army Report. With an afterword by Michael Gollbach, Reinbek bei Hamburg 1979, pp. 79 - 81.




The new technical possibilities changed the war massively: Two German soldiers with machine guns and gas masks in trench warfare, 1918. (& copy picture-alliance / akg)
The first major gas use took place on April 22, 1915 near Ypres by German troops. On the morning of that day the German barrage started. It was concentrated in an area in West Flanders, north of the Belgian city of Ypres. Only in the late afternoon did the fire gradually subside, a sure sign for the French and Algerian soldiers lying here that the German attack was imminent. But instead of German infantrymen, a yellow-green cloud became visible around 6 p.m. At a width of nearly six kilometers it moved slowly but steadily with the wind towards the French trenches. It was chlorine gas, discharged from over 5,000 steel cylinders that a special gas battalion had dug in days earlier. This first large-scale use of poison gas was invented by Fritz Haber, Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry in Berlin. The gas he recommended burned the windpipe and lungs. It was a feeling, according to one survivor, like "throwing up your lungs piece by piece". An effect that could be enhanced by adding phosgene. Almost 1,200 Allied soldiers die that day, 3,000 men survive and sometimes remain damaged for life.

You don't have to go as far as the cultural philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, who recently called April 22, 1915 a "central date in recent world history". "With the Ypres event," terrorism was introduced as an element of normal state war "because" the switch from direct attack on the enemy to attack on the enemy's environment, on the air he breathed "had taken place. In any case, the chemical warfare that began on April 22, 1915 was not decisive for the war. An estimated 90,000 deaths on all sides from around 115,000 tons of vented or fired poisonous gases were negligible in the millions of deaths. But the eerie and demoralizing effect of the gases demonstrated more than other weapons the radically new character of machine warfare, which degraded people to vermin.

The strong dependence on the wind direction and the possible endangerment of own troops soon turned military interest to the development of gas-filled artillery ammunition - and increasingly dangerous poisons. The so-called "green cross" gases, as lung poisons, were responsible for around 80 percent of all fatal gas injuries. In July 1917, the German army fired "blue cross" combat gases for the first time. These poisons - also called "mask breakers" in military jargon - penetrated the gas mask filters customary at the time, irritated the eyes, nose and oral mucosa and forced the gas mask to be torn off. Immediately afterwards a lethal gas was fired, the so-called "Buntschießen".

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"Dulce et decorum est": one of the outstanding works by the well-known war poet Wilfried Owen in its original version from 1917

Wilfried Owen (1893 - 1918) is one of the best-known war poets of the First World War. In the poem "Dulce et decorum est", written in 1917, Owen uses lyrical and sarcastic language to counteract the sentence of the Roman poet Horace, which was then known in all nations
(65 BC - 8 BC) from his second Roman ode (Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori), in which he describes a gas attack on the western front and its consequences. The last stanza reads:

"If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori. "

"Even if you are in one of your suffocating dreams
could walk behind the cart we threw him in
and look at the white eyes that twitch in his face
his drooping face, which is like that of a sin-weary devil;
if you could hear him, as with every thrust the blood
comes gurgling from his foam-spoiled lungs
obscene as cancer, bitter as bile,
incurable, infamous evils on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not be so excited
the children who are hungry for desperate fame
to shout out the old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori. "

Translation B. Ulrich

The poem and more information at:, and html



New fighting methods

Fallen British soldiers on the Western Front, undated photo. (& copy picture-alliance / akg)

In the end, there were new combat and shooting methods that were tried out on the German side in the successful 12th and last Isonzo battle (October 24-27, 1917) on the Austro-Italian mountain war front, especially in the last offensives March 1918 ("Michael") led to initial success. Without large - and therefore always treacherous - preparations, an artillery strike that was as massive as it was short took place on previously explored, poorly manned or poorly secured enemy trenches and the enemy artillery positioned behind them. Small, specially trained assault or shock troops armed with light machine guns, grenade and flamethrowers, concentrated charges (e.g. several hand grenades tied together) and the first submachine guns gathered in its protection. They attacked immediately after the end of the artillery raid and bypassing the still intact enemy machine-gun positions and "cleared", that is, killed the remaining trench crews, which had often already been demoralized by the massive and surprising artillery strike. 'Normal' infantry and artillery units should then "infiltrate" into the gap created in the opposing front and advance further.

First of all, surprising breakthroughs of up to 80 kilometers depth could be achieved with this process. But terrain-related supply problems, high losses and the increasingly noticeable superiority of the allies, now strengthened by American associations, sealed the foreseeable defeat. The influenza epidemic, which began in July 1918, also burdened the already exhausted and starved troops - attack divisions had literally "pegged themselves" in conquered Allied food depots.

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The doctor Ernst Simmel on "war tremors" and "war shakers"

During the First World War, the doctor and psychoanalyst Ernst Simmel worked as a senior physician in the fortress hospital in Poznan from 1917 onwards.
At the 5th International Psychoanalytic Congress in Budapest in 1918 - in which Sigmund Freud also took part in the uniform of an Austro-Hungarian military doctor - he gave a lecture on the "Psychoanalysis of War Neuroses", in which he explained how he would soon become popular Tried to help soldiers called "war tremors" or "war shakers" through hypnosis. He also finds enlightening words for the reasons for the disease:

"One must have witnessed the war events themselves or their recapitulation in (...) hypnosis in order to understand the onslaught of the soul life of a person who has to go back into the field after being wounded several times, at important family events from his own people to unforeseeable ones Time is separated, is irredeemably exposed to the murderous monstrosity of a tank or a rolling enemy gas wave, which is buried and wounded by shell hits, often lies for hours and days among bloody, torn friend corpses and last but not least, those whose self-esteem is badly injured by unjust, cruel, even complex-ruled superiors, and who still has to be quiet, silently depressed by the fact that he is nothing as an individual and is only an insignificant part of the crowd. "

From: Ernst Simmel, Psychoanalysis and its Applications. Selected writings, Frankfurt a.M. 1993, pp. 21-35, p. 23.



However, this did not prevent the shock troop soldiers of the last months after the war from producing those "Siegfried natures" whom the war allegedly could not destroy, who had defied the war of materials as its "conquerors". Already during the war, the strong-willed, highly motivated, steel-helmet-armed attack troop soldier developed his own myth and iconography.

The Allies, however, increasingly relied on tanks, which had been developed and used since 1916. At first they were highly vulnerable to flamethrowers, hand grenades and specially developed guns and tank guns, and at the same time they were prone to failure. But they were soon able to achieve success in trench warfare because they were able to roll down barriers, overcome trenches and offer protection for the advance. The strategically decisive breakthrough through the German front on August 8, 1918 was achieved with the support of more than 400 tanks.

Selected literature:

Tony Asworth, Trench Warfare 1914-1918. The Live and Let Live System, London 1980.

Jean-Jacques Becker, Gerd Krumeich, The Great War. Germany and France in the First World War 1914-1918, Essen 2010.

This. (Ed.), "Nobody feels more human here ..." Experience and impact of the First World War, Frankfurt a.M. 1996.

Christoph Jahr, common soldiers. Desertion and deserters in the German and British armies 1914-1918, Göttingen 1998.

Eric J. Leed, No Man’s Land. Combat and Identity in World War I, Cambridge and New York 1979.

Jochen Oltmer (ed.), Prisoners of War in Europe during the First World War, Paderborn et al. 2006.

Rolf Spilker, Bernd Ulrich (ed.), Death as a machinist. The industrialized war 1914-1918, Bramsche 1998.

Hew Strachan, The First World War. A new illustrated story, Munich 2004.

Jacques Tardi, Jean-Pierre Verney, Elender Krieg, Vol. 1 1914-1915-1916, Zurich 2009; Vol. 2 1917-1918-1919, Zurich 2010 (comic).

Bernd Ulrich, Benjamin Ziemann (ed.), Everyday life at the front in World War I. A historical reading book, Essen 2008.

This. (Ed.), War in Peace. The contested memory of the First World War, Frankfurt a.M. 1997.

Bernd Ulrich, The eyewitnesses. German field post letters in the war and post-war period 1914-1933, Essen 1997.
Available online at:

Benjamin Ziemann, Front and Home. Rural War Experiences in Southern Bavaria 1914-1923, Essen 1997.